The 2012 Reno Adventure
We had planned to get out to Reno during the year to test fly Miss USA with all the mods that Steve “Griffen” Tumlin had worked on over the winter – but somehow this never quite happened. So we arrived at Reno with an aircraft that had only been test flown a handful of time and had some real problems with overheating.
Mercifully Kevin “Blade” Broughall had come out 2 days ahead of us to help Steve “Griffen” get her up to Reno and set up for racing. By the time we had arrived they had her in the pits and technical inspection had been completed. What a change from last year when we only just managed to get “teched” when I flew her back to Stead field from Beckworth on Wednesday morning… at the very last minute possible. A good start to our 2012 campaign!
The changes we have made to the aircraft are considerable. The prop is now 12” further forwards, mounted on a Saber prop extension, so the new cowling is longer and leaner, electronic ignition has been fitted and the 4:1 exhaust is on, requiring a change to the oil tank (Steve calls it “massaged”) to fit round the new exhaust.
The temperature sensor for the oil tank is close to the exhaust so this could be one reason that the oil is hot and so she runs hot. But then again cylinders 2 & 4 on the left are also running very hot. My theory is that the prop spirals the airflow directly behind it and the shape of the new cowl means that air is blown into the right inlet and over the left inlet as opposed to into it. Thom Richards had a look and seems to agree. He made it here in Precious Metal without issue this time and his new prop, cut down from a Shakelton prop that Moose had sourced and sent him, is running well. And much faster. She’s spilling oil from every orifice of course, but hey, she’s Griffon powered!
Sunday its meet up at 0600 at Starbucks in the GSR and we meet up with Ben “Torque” Wilson for his second year with us. Blade and Griffen have dropped off the Church van for us to get out the Stead field. And when we finally find it we are on our way to mandatory mass briefing at 0700. It’s a big self congratulatory session as the RARA management have really had to work it hard to keep the races going after the disaster of last year. The presentation on G-LOC was interesting but not really relevant to us pilots of the slower planes. Miss Kelly disappears to Walmart and starts building her pit, so that drinks and food are on hand all week. How great is that?
At 1100 the Formulas 1’s are towed to the end of Runway 32 for practice time on the course. We are in the first group of 4 but… she… will… not… start. Memories of last year come flooding back – not again! We trailer her back and take the cowls off and find 2 wires from the new electronic ignition have come off – perhaps in the transit in from Minden. We fix her put the cowls back on and run her – twice, just to be sure.
Sunday email Winds out of the NW so we stage Miss USA race #40 for runway 32. She will not start! The rest of Formula 1 get valuable practice time on the course. Too windy to fly in the evening – no problem we have all week….
Sunday night is party central at Precious’ pit. Thom has a Texan party bus and we get that party started. Miss K is fab and off on the back of Eric’s large Yamaha motorbike that takes its styling from Harley Davidson. Finally, we retrieve Blade and Torque and head to collect Blade’s gear from Bryant’s trailer where he crashed last night. Where the van just decides to die, conveniently at a 45 degree angle across the three RV and camping spaces we have had allocated to Team Miss USA. “She just knew where to die.” was Griffen’s comment. We borrow a truck from Craig on Thom’s team and head for the GSR and a quick Mexican, which despite ordering as frugally as we can is enormous.
Monday 10th September.
Starbucks 0600. Pits by 0620. Briefing at 0700. Push out at 0730. I’m in the first group of 4 and despite requiring a few pulls, which does have us asking if she will, she does start. I warm her up and muse about the subtle handover of the “ownership of the aircraft” from engineers to pilots.
She is their aircraft, even when I strap in and start preparing her to go flying, she is theirs. Right up until she starts – and then they can relax and she belongs to me. I have to perform now. I’m on stage. So 99.9% of the time the aircraft belongs to the engineers, and only 0.01% is she truly mine. They don’t really relax, when they give her to me, of course, just wait to see what state she is in when I bring her back and will they be up all night fixing her?
So we have developed our own little ritual to make sure that we all know who the aircraft belongs to. In the US Navy they like to say “Put the monkey in the can” to the crew chief, when the engineering is complete and the plane is ready to go flying. And when the monkey, ahem pilot, is strapped in, the hand over is complete and the crew reports to the crew chief, “The monkey is in the can, sir!” We use a banana sitting on the upper cowl, just behind the prop, to indicate that the engineering is complete and the plane is ready to be flown. And when we are ready to go flying, Blade hands it to me in mock reverence and with a salute, in the same comic mode as the French crew in “Those magnificent men in their flying machines” sending up the Germans, with their pomp and ceremony. After the flight I debrief what worked and what is still, or newly, broken and hand him back the banana. You may well be thinking that the banana is getting old, tired and more than a little brown and perhaps a little manky, but well, Miss Kelly, ever vigilant, is on the case and this year I have my own plastic banana. A Christmas present from Santa’s stocking.
Running her up the temps and pressures are OK – we have a GoPro camera pointed at the EFISs so we can re run the flight with full engine information afterwards for diagnostics. It’s not telemetry, but a very low cost effective alternative. We expect her to get hot, despite the gills that Kevin has cut into the side of the new cowl.
After a quick mag check at 2,000 rpm Kevin comes over and signals cut. I pull the mixture and as she runs down smoke pours out of the cowl. “Oh God” I think. “What have I done?” We pull her in and strip the cowls off. It’s an oil leak from the heavily modified oil tank filler neck, dripping oil on the hot exhaust. Just like the smoke system on my Yak 50. Kevin has the oil tank off the plane, washed and welded within an hour. Who knows how he found a welder on site and had it all done so quickly? Miss Kelly took the van with the new charged battery but it stopped on her and so I had to go and rescue her in Steve’s truck from Scolari’s. Later I found the problem, the alternator was charging but the cable to the battery had broken right at the battery terminal. After Steve fixed that she was perfect all week and never missed a beat.
By the time I’m back Miss USA is ready. So we take her out and power her up. Starts after a short pause and …. there’s another leak. Kevin and Torque strip her again and while doing so Steve notices that the prop bolts aren’t quite right. Torque is given the task of replacing them and yes… torquing them up and wire locking the hub.
We push her out for the third time today, I do a quick radio check with Race Control and she starts first pull. No leaks. I warm her and then run up to 3,000 Rpm without any problem and its still not full power. The noise inside the tiny cockpit with a helmet and headset on is absolutely deafening. But I figure that if she’s going to break anything I would much rather it happens here safely on the ground than somewhere in the sky or on the race course. But she holds and sounds amazing. Not rpm bad for static.
We pull her back in and cowl her up again. Maybe we can fly at 1700?
Too windy at 1700, so we come up with the Master plan to drink heavily and fly before briefing tomorrow morning. 0611 is 30 minutes before sunrise and legally VMC, so its going to be an early start tomorrow.
Monday email Light winds so we stage at A3 for runway 8, as usual. She starts first swing but as I run her up we are leaking oil onto the exhaust and making smoke. So I cannot fly. We spend the afternoon removing the oil tank and welding it secure – not once but after another engine run, twice. Too windy to fly in the evening. We console ourselves by going to Precious Metal pit and hang out with the rest of Team FLIRT (the Florida International Racing Team – the Florida Air Racing Team didn’t look so good as an accronym) which includes Thom Richard’s Griffon powered Mustang (the new face of Breitling) and Lachie Onslow’s Iskra jet. It’s a big extended family of pilots and engineers happy to be surrounded by like minded souls.
Tuesday 11th September.
Starbucks 0530. Changed into my flight suit in the loo at the Formula 1 pit at 0600. Its all glamour this air racing! At least at this time of the morning there are no puddles of pee to step over while changing. The Formula 1 pits are the height of civility – all the other classes are stuck with porta loos, which after a few days in the heat are genuinely disgusting. W2 have 2 urinals, 3 traps and 4 basins with “20 mule powered Borax powderd hand soap” white and gritty that comes out of metal dispensers. It cuts through grease and makes your hands feel soft for about 30 seconds.
We push Miss USA out into the darkness. She starts on the first pull. There is a crescent moon above us and the last of the stars slowly making way for sunrise. It’s still really dark as I warm up the engine. I call up CTAF and they tell me to call Race control who refuse to answer me, so go back to the tower on CTAF. I taxi for 08, find it surprisingly easy to steer with a solid roller blade as a tail wheel, run up and by 0620 it’s almost light enough to go flying. I haven’t flown her for a year and I’m about to do almost a night take off on a very heavily modified aircraft. With 8 hours jet lag and a slight hangover. Great. No pressure.
Power up as we turn East into the predawn light onto the runway. The rudder pedals are more sensitive than I remember, but she comes up onto the main gear nicely and I coax her gently into the sky. And everything that could possibly go wrong decides to happen all at once.
The EFIS now decides to give erratic and useless RPM indications and more important No1 cylinder goes green, yellow and then red. At about as fast as you read that. She isn’t boring up into the sky at “130 mph indicated” as I was expecting. I’m barely at 110 mph and turning downwind low and slow over the desert scrub to keep a runway in gliding range. At 700’ cylinders 2 & 4 are red hot and oil temp is coming up fast. So I ease back the power and we cruise another circuit, managing to get 2 & 4 CHT back into the yellow. I try to squeeze on a little more power and she goes red instantly. Then oil pressure collapses pretty much as you would expect as the oil temperature has got over 320. OK, no time to fart about up here, time to land – back down in the shadow masquerading as a runway, which, amusingly enough, as if I wasn’t already having enough fun, has two trucks with yellow lights on it doing a FOD sweep.
I call the Tower “Race 40 downwind to land 08” and he cannot hear me. So I try again and then he comes back to me saying that he sees me descending and instructs me to “Go around as there are trucks on the runway”. I declare a Mayday, as if I try to put power on and go around with these CHTs there is every likelihood the engine will seize. But he doesn’t spring into life, as I expected. He tells me to “Go around”, again. I repeat the Mayday call, tell him that I have no oil pressure and have to land. He cannot hear me but just as I’m thinking about landing between the trucks and ripping the wings off or taking an unscheduled excursion into the desert, both of which will end our week almost before it has got started, I won’t get hurt, at least not seriously, one of the trucks moves from the slow side to the fast side of the runway. Good as I didn’t think I could squeeze between them and don’t fancy a high speed trip into the gravel beside the runway on my first flight of the year. I slow her to land, slide across to the crowd side of the runway and plonk her down firmly so that I can steer her and keep away from the trucks. I sail past them at about 50 mph with the tail on the ground and everything nicely under control. I shut down on the runway before the engine melts, with trucks on the runway no one else is going to use it, and radio to ask the tower to call my crew. They race down the runway at 5 mph in the Golf buggy to collect me looking very concerned.
The video of the EFIS tells us all we need to know. The boys go back to work while I go into briefing at 0700. By the time we stage at 0845 they have ripped out some of the ducting and added more insulation to the exhaust system.
We stage and eventually get her started after a heart stopping 5 minutes. She’s my plane again. We need to do 4 laps to demonstrate my G tolerance, a new requirement after Ghost’s accident last year (pointless as nobody can withstand 17g) and also record a qualifying time. Bob Bemet signals me out onto the runway and I’m onto the course. The plan is to get round 4 laps and record a qualifying time without blowing up the motor. I’m slow, fully rich and using half power, 130 mph indicated, almost wallowing and racers are screaming past my wingtip. Slow and predictable, tight on to the pylons, as low as I can and there are no issues with the overtaking aircraft as I’m not in their way. I call for the clock after the first lap, actually hear the response (a first as the magnetos we used to have blocked all radio and the new electronic ignition doesn’t interfere as much), see the white flag and the chequered flag, so I manage to post a time. Result. On the 5th lap I pull up at the backside of the course and slide her on with a very gentle skip (“like a stone skimming across a glassy pond” was how Torque put it) and then settle her back down. We were timed at 165mph, shockingly slow, not last! But qualified.
The boys celebrate by spending the rest of the day building a whole new intake system on the lower right hand cowl, with great help from Mark in the Canadian Pooder team. Blade is learning new skills with GRP, a broom handle and a hairdryer. And he’s loving it.
We push her out to test fly after 1800. The wind is light, there’s another photo shoot out on the ramp with half naked girls draped across Precious Metal. Miss USA starts first time, the tower gives me a radio check, but at the A4 hold for 08 I have no comms. So reluctantly taxi back before she melts. But at least the CHTs are all aligned now…… Maybe this fix will work and we can run at race power tomorrow.
Tuesday email I need to get airborne and some practice time as I haven’t flown her in a year, so we decide to fly before 0700 briefing. Sunrise is 0641 so at 0611 it’s legally VMC. There is a crescent moon and stars above me as I strap in at 0620. Surprisingly the tower is alive and clears me onto 08. Immediate chaos on take off. Engine starts to melt with CHT immediately red and I’m getting no RPM info from the EFIS. I nurse her round a circuit, desperate for cooling air. We climb slowly and carefully and after a second circuit oil pressure starts to drop. Time to go back down to the dark runway. Just to make it more interesting there are trucks doing a FOD sweep of the runway. The tower tells me to go round but I daren’t risk it – she could seize. So I declare a Mayday and work out if I can squeeze between the trucks. One of them scoots across and half the runway is open. I drop her on and start braking hard – just in case. No issue as I slide by the parked trucks. The crew collect me and strips her down. New cooling ducting is fitted while I attend briefing at 0700. Maybe it will work. I need to get 4 laps on the course to prove G tolerance and a timed lap to qualify. I decide to do them at the same time before she melts. So its a very slow turn round the course and call for the clock on the second lap. It all works to plan and I have a good landing too. The cowls come off again and new intakes are fabricated during the afternoon. The support from the fellow crews is amazing. Glass fibre and tools appear as needed. Even the unlimited crews, who are usually ferociously bad tempered to each other are supporting each other this year after the tragedy of 2011. I try to fly her in the evening when the winds die. She starts first swing and radio is good. But at the hold I can’t get through to the tower…. so I taxi back before she melts. Frustrating.
Wednesday 12th September
We have a 20 minute slot at 0800 and Vito wants to test fly too. So it’s just the two of us. Miss USA obliges and starts first time. I’m waved onto the course with Vito already at race speed having done his first lap. Cooling is much better but I cannot run sustained race power without No2 CHT and EGT redlining out. She’s still fully rich, no thought of leaning for peak power. The RPM reading is erratic and useless as a result. But after 8 laps we are certainly going much faster than yesterday. Perfect landing – wish I knew what I did to make that happen as it makes a nice change from the skipping and bouncing I usually have to make do with. Roll out to A2 and the boys turn up in Steve’s van. Refuel, de-cowl, drain all the oil through a filter to check for any metal in the engine – mercifully none – put fans blowing cooling air into the engine, watch the video of the EFIS to confirm temps. I go to race briefing while the boys adjust cooling baffles, track down leaking air and reseat No 3 cylinder, which Kevin had noticed has a pinched gasket after the tech inspection.
We stage at 1115 and race at 12.
The silver race is only 4 planes as we lost Pooder to tech and Knotty Girl is still broken. I draw front outside with Bill Prodi in N A Rush Centre and Jay Jones in Quadranikel in pole. Brian Reberrey in Tony the Tiger takes the second row. Start is uneventful with both Jay and Bill getting away from me but Bill taking a very wide line. I just follow Jay’s line into pylon 1. I think I can catch Bill who’s way wide on the back straight and run her close to full (unleaned) for a lap and a half. But despite running her full into the red on CHT and EGT he gets away from me, so after a lap I have to throttle back a bit to keep CHT at 520 or below. Jay laps me and I lap Brian flying Tony the Tiger, but I cannot catch either Jay in Qudranickel or Bill in NARush. Jay wins and I’m a lame third. On landing I follow Brian down after a lap of cool down and he heads off to California in his circuit, I follow him thinking that he must fly bombers as we are way too far away from the airfield if the engine dies now. I give him a couple hundred feet of space on landing, close but not scary, and he lands and moves over predictably, but his turbulence gives me a lousy arrival. I get talked to for being too low and for landing so close to Brian, but apart from that it’s all fine.
In the afternoon Kevin comes up with a plan to build a spray bar with Mark from Pooder’s Canadian pit. Why not? All the big planes use water to cool their engines. They spend the entire afternoon out shopping for parts or sitting on the hangar floor deep in conversation about design and fabrication with bits scattered all around them. They finally finish at after midnight and we have long departed for dinner and to meet Julian and Christine, and Hopi who is also due in this evening. Thumper and Bambi (who has been out at the party bus and riding motor bikes with Miss Kelly and is predictably a bit the worse for wear) drive us back to GSR where we all have dinner.
Wednesday email We have a 15 minute practice session at 0800 and then the first race at noon. We decide that I should use the practice session and get more time on the course. Everything is much better but I still cannot use race power for very long. Perfect landing. More mods during the morning, oil change and no metal found so I haven’t broken her … yet. We stage and I’m on the outside of the front row in the silver heat. Good take off but I cannot catch the first two planes. I can use a bit more power bit #2 CHT is still running too hot. I’m flying a much better line but still way too slow. In the gold heat the course record is broken at 260 mph. At 50′ that’s fast. The boys decide to copy the bigger planes and fabricate a spray bar to pump water into the intake to improve cooling…… It’s different. The Brits have standards to maintain. They will probably stay up half the night perfecting it. They kindly allow me to put Miss USA stickers on the cowling! Miss Kelly is great, she runs a tight and happy pit keeping everyone fed and watered. Both of our brothers are arriving tonight. Let’s hope we make it to briefing at 0700 and I can use race power tomorrow. SPH
Thursday 13th September
0600 Starbucks. Torque and Thumper join me in the van. Blade stayed at Stead working on his patent spray bar cooling system. He shows me how it works and it all looks very neat and well executed. My only improvement is a safety strap to stop the water tank falling into the controls if it breaks away from its mounting strap. Briefing takes 4 minutes – Shifty is getting good at this. We stage at 0715, at 0745 I’m strapped and she starts first time. I feel confident that the cooling system is going to work and that this race can be won. I’m middle of the front row with Bill in NA Rush on the inside and Tom with Pooder on the outside.
From the flag down we don’t accelerate as quickly as we should. At rotation they are 50 yards ahead of me and the engine is coughing and generally sounding like a bag of nails. I contemplate flying straight and landing back on 08, but 32 is available just after pylon 1, so I persevere. But she isn’t a happy bunny this morning and by pylon 1 I think that the two planes behind me must be getting close so decide to climb into the course and Mayday out of the race. The engine runs intermittently and I cruise downwind to 08, slide on with a greaser landing and taxi back to the boys. We try some engine runs to see what the problem is – the bottom plugs are running rough, which suggests too rich a mixture and there are clouds of black smoke coming out behind.
Cowls off and the plugs are black. New plugs are fitted and the F1 inspection team make a few comments about the fitting and security of the spray bar. They cannot see why we shouldn’t “change the humidity of the air that goes over the engine”, so we agree with their suggested changes. And I plan to fly her after the main events are over after 1700.
Thursday email Kevin, Ben and Mark have been up half the night working on the spray bar. We are confident of a good result today and with Jay Jones being bumped up into Gold I’m hopeful that we can win. She starts first swing. I’m drawn middle of the front row and ready to race. On start we accelerate a bit slower than the planes on either side of me and the engine coughs a bit. On rotation we are 50 yards behind and the engine sounds like a bag of nails. Clearly I’m not getting full power. I think about landing straight ahead, but decide to persevere as Runway 32 gives me another safe choice after pylon 1. She’s not pulling and coughing badly so, with two aircraft close behind me, I decide to pull up into the course and Mayday out of the race with a 500′ low circuit back 08. Landing is a greaser. I taxi back and do some engine runs – my theory is that she is too rich and this density altitude, but up until now I haven’t been able to lean as “fuel keeps the engine cool”. Clearly we are making carbon, black smoke and not power. Pity for the boys, who have put in so much work, and the family turning up not to race – but we have 3 more days of racing so not a big deal. The cowls come off and fans go on. The plugs are black so we send out for new plugs. We test fly again at 1700 and then I hope to lean properly and to test the spray bar. SPH
Thursday 1730 email We test fly after the races with some of the static displays planes and airshow performers arriving. I’m a bit nervous about causing a problem for incoming aircraft with my baby plane but the crew assure me that with new plugs and proper leaning she will run fine. We have a minor snag after start with a lead on the side of the helmet but I get cleared onto 08 and am expecting to blast into the circuit for half an hour of testing at 130 mph.
Take off is solid but she stutters and coughs as I turn downwind. I massage the throttle and mixture and she delivers power but it erratic – clearly something is wrong. Over the next 15 minutes I manage to gain 2,000′ and can test out the spray bar cooling system. It works! All temps are cool and there are no issues at all. Great. But she is still running really poorly. There’s a Mustang on 3 mile final for 08 and 4 more of the Patriot teams L39′s inbound at 8 miles. Great! I just nurse her along with the smell of steam from the cooling system until I can find a break in the traffic and set her back down. The smell reminds me of my Mother ironing when I was a small boy. Its like flying the laundry I conclude… Landing is uneventful, as perfect as it gets, until I lower the tail at 70mph to brake for the A2 exit and she tries to leap back into the sky again with a massive wobble. The guys tell me that they want to fit wheels to the wing tips afterwards…. I tell Kevin “good news, you are a genius” the cooling works. Bad news, she runs erratically”. He spends the evening stripping down the new carb, massaging it and cleaning out some particles that “must have blocked the nozzle”. Then the run her at full smash and she’s perfect! Great!! SPH
Our pit is filing up with friends from UK and elsewhere. I comment to someone that Miss Kelly is the “pit bitch” who runs a tight ship and she overhears me. “I’m not the pit bitch!” she interjects, “I’m the chief pit bitch!”.
Friday Silver race email We are confident that after last nights work she will run at race power. We stage, strap in and start up. I lean as instructed and as we did last year. No issues. Flag down and away a little slower than Vito and Tom inside me but we are quickly catching then as we all roll at full power down the runway. There are 2 planes close behind so we stay in our lanes until one wheel is off the ground and I’m gaining fast. Airborne and I’m moving over towards the first pylon and she’s singing!! Then she coughs splutters and power fails again. Hmmm, I think. Runway 32 is a safe choice if she stops now, but she’s still running just not at full race power continuously. Spray bar on as EGT and CHT are starting to spike. Drive her as hard as I can and grab a few more feet of altitude just in case. But she does run – only not consistently. No idea what’s wrong, I can continue the race, just not competitively. And then Knotty Girl, a slower plane, makes a nice pass outside me. OK, time to get out of everyones way, so I climb into and above the course and call downwind for 08. After throttling back to slow down I try power and its there in abundance. Fuel flow must be the issue. Slide her on and taxi back past the row of F18s and F22s, when the roller blade that is the fixed tail wheel decides to disintegrate…. When we decowl her again we find the ram air for the fuel tank isn’t connected. So fuel starvation with continuous power is what was happening. Kevin and Mark, who worked on her last night hang their heads and apologise. The truth is that I wouldn’t be flying at all without them. I’m just the stick wiggler. We will test fly her at 1700. And with any luck she will be perfect! SPH
Friday 1800 The oil tank is removed again for another small leak and this time is braised to close the hole. My brother Julian goes out and finds a replacement roller blade wheel and spends the afternoon fitting it. The spray bar tank is checked and refuelled. The ram air tube to the carb float chamber is reconnected and we are ready. After a small radio faff, we switch radios and I taxi for 26. Precious Metal is up with a helicopter camera ship doing video for the news. The sun is straight down the runway as it slowly sinks behind the hills in Calif. The CHT is hot after a long downwind taxi and the radio nonsense. We blast off and I have my airplane back. She is howling – running hot but a thoroughbred race plane once more. We do right hand circuits at 1,000′ + above the field, making space for random Mustangs and the occasional jet to run and break, for 26 right. The spray bar isn’t working but the vents seem to be OK and we can run max power almost continuously. Fuel flow isn’t an issue. I am tempted toward a hint of a smile. We have all worked for this. Yes I am definitely having fun. I call the tower “Stead Tower, Race 40, test ops complete, downwind right 26 to land”. We slide on and don’t break the tail wheel. The girls pose for photographs with the plane. The sun goes down. We race tomorrow. SPH
Saturday email Al and Chris joined us last night so Team Miss USA is up to 13. We meet at Starbucks at 0600 and drive the Church van (that passes 378 thousand miles) to Reno Stead field for briefing at 0700. Expectations are high. We all expect her to run well and if she starts and I don’t screw up we have a good chance of winning the Silver heat. There is talk of the team on the firetruck, waving at the adoring crowd…. Hmmm. No pressure. She has to start first. I’m drawn in the middle of the front row, Tom in Pooder on the inside, Dave in Knotty girl outside me. I’m in and ready with 10 minutes to start, we run through the start rituals and Torque pulls the prop…she fires up first time. Radio check. At 2 minutes the crew leaves me with her and I complete the warm up and engine checks. A few deep breaths and the aviator’s prayer. “Dear Lord please don’t let me screw up”. Red flag down, Green flag up, spool her up, lean to peak RPM, full smash, flag down and we are away. Pooder gains 10 yards on the roll out, so does Dave but I make it back off Dave by sliding on one wheel towards pylon 1 and in behind Pooder’s right wing tip. The engine coughs. “Not now baby, come on” I just drive her on at max power and flick on the spray bar as we turn into pylon 1. A few more coughs and then she settles. On the back straight I have Pooder in sight for a pass, but decide to give him some space and make the move on him as we come out of 6 on the home straight. I’m on his wingtip as we get to 5 and driving hard. Off 6 on the home straight we both dive 20′ or so but I can slide by him and have the entire straight to get clear before moving over for the inside line. Nice and tight on the top end of the course and the shadows are behind me. No. 2 cylinder is running in the yellow and EGT is red, but apart from that she’s cool and oil temp is very stable. Oil pressure is holding well, just starting to decline as the oil warms up. We drive hard for 3 laps and establish a comfortable lead. I check for shadows and look across the course to see where the other fast planes are. All I can see is Brian in Tony the Tiger, so the others are still close behind me. I manage to lap Brian twice – but not before we get chucked about in his turbulence. Then it’s time to start thinking about preserving the engine and protecting the lead. I ease back the power just a little, richen up the mixture a couple of turns and add 10′ round the course. White flag – one lap to go. Chequered flag and up into the cool down and Q for landing. Pretty sure that I have done nothing to get disqualified. Perfect landing, hot side, cold side. Taxi in past the row of F18s and F22s and amazing Warbirds and wonder quietly how in earth I got to do this. The crew are driving the buggy, now covered with US and UK flags, towards me, so pull the mixture and shut down the engine, maybe for the last time this year, and roll towards them across the pan. I can breathe again. Mission accomplished. Everyone is happy and there are hugs and thumps on the back all round. Compliments on my racing line and prudent strategy – all totally undeserved. This is a team effort, without the endless hours put in by the engineering crew and countless “bitch runs” to stock the pit and feed everyone, my 5 minutes of glory aren’t remotely possible. I’m just very proud for the teams’ achievement (and thrilled that the aviators prayer was answered this once). My main emotion? Relief. We do interviews for TV and RARA and shake hands with people we don’t know. Then its time to ride the firetruck and wave to the crowd and the other racers in their pits. We “do the Bolt” from the top of the firetruck to screams and shouts from the orange clad section 3 who are drinking beer and creating their own party atmosphere. We are “fill in” for the Gold heat tomorrow if anyone goes tech or cannot start. But today we party. SPH
We are fill in for the Gold and there is a 50:50 chance that one of them will not start or go tech and that we will fly. We push out, start her first swing, we are getting better at this, but they all start too and after their take off we tow her back to the pit for the tech inspection …again.
We pack up the pit, distribute our banquet tickets and say our goodbyes. Hep Porter is going to fly Miss USA back to Minden, Steve is going to take good care of her. And then we head to the GSR to pack and for a couple of beers with Nachos with Hopi and the flight home. But, as ever, Reno has one last twist in store for us.
I’m tired at the airport and take a Niquil to help me sleep on the long flight home, I lay my head on Miss Kelly’s shoulder. The next thing I know is I’m lying on the floor and paramedics are all around me. Apparently I passed out in the departure lounge with blood pressure of 60 over 40. I normally run low, 120 over 80, but this is ridiculous. I feel dozy, tired, and all I want to do is sleep. They take me to Renown hospital and give me a saline IV drip in the ambulance. Two cardiologsts are waiting to see me. I can answer all the questions – do I know where I am, my name, who the US President is etc and do I have any pain in my arm or chest – no I’m not having a heart attack. They connect 6 different sets of sticky monitors to me during the process and decide to admit me to hospital for the night at a cost of US$ 16,000! I try to walk out but without a Doctors letter telling the airline that I was admitted BA will not change the flight home. We decide to stay, I get my bloods checked every 4 hours, and Miss Kelly, poor bunny, climbs into my hospital bed and we sleep pretty well given the circumstances and interruptions, wrapped around each other.
By morning I have had 6 pints of saline into my system and I’m feeling fine. We chat to the nurses and the Dr finally comes to discharge me – helpful for getting on a flight later. First stop is back to the airport to find our bags that were taken off last nights flight and then try to figure out how to get home. One of our bags went on the flight and Kevin’s rucksack was left behind. BA are hopeless, they want us to go out on Tuesday and connect in Chicago as Reno has no seats going out due to the end of the air races. We hatch a plan to rent a car and drive 2 hours to Sacramento where we can get a flight to Phoenix and back onto BA. This plan works fine but we could just as easily have driven to San Francisco in 3 ½ hours and avoided the extra leg.
We sleep like babies on the trip home. Happy that Reno 2012 is over and we managed to achieve what we set out to, only not quite in the way we had planned…. Best of all we are together. And Miss USA will wait for us to come back. And fly her, faster!